Welcome to 2005, the first year of the Anti-Brand Era.
Although evidence isn't yet abounding, anecdotes indicate to this usually cynical trend-quasher that the public has been overfed by-and is now fed up with-marketing.
American Apparel has begun to attract enormous notice by being unnoticeable. By specializing in merchandise without logos, the 8-year-old fashion firm has managed to build out 13 retail stores in the last two years alone.
The biggest news in brand-conscious South Beach this winter has been the opening of the ultra-hip Hotel Victor, the latest competitor to Andre Balazs' sandy-chic Raleigh and Ian Schrager's sleek Delano. What's the secret of the Victor, which abuts the Versace mansion on Ocean Drive? It's a Hyatt-a brand that appears nowhere on or inside the hostelry.
And then there's Target Stores. The former Dayton Hudson Corp. chain turned itself from a venerable, Midwestern department-store proprietor to the stylish "Tar-zhay" by emphasizing goods designed uniquely for the chain by such high-fashion celebrities as Michael Graves and Isaac Mizrahi. It's latest gambit: "non-design design," which one executive describes as well-made, value-priced merchandise with "packaging that will never bear [the] designers' names."
It turns out Naomi Klein was onto something. The author of "No Logo," a manifesto against big companies, marketing and globalization, clearly captured a brewing discomfort far more mainstream than her leftist predisposition would have indicated. "Ethical shareholders, culture jammers, street reclaimers, McUnion organizers, human-rights hacktivists, school-logo fighters and Internet corporate watchdogs are at the early stages of demanding a citizen-centered alternative to the international rule of the brands," the Canadian activist wrote.
Why the welling discontent? It's probably less about globalization, or even about corporate practices, than Ms. Klein and her core sympathizers believe-in no small part because most people actually try to do the right and responsible thing most of the time. Rather, I suspect the rise of the anti-brand has more to do with peoples' ongoing search for authenticity, and the contradiction between authenticity and media, which average folk increasingly and intuitively believe to be manipulative.
It's not just product and service marketers facing the challenge from what The New York Times labeled "intelligent generics." The news media have suffered by attending more to the branding of news people than to the great gathering of important news. To the degree that blogs are gaining readers, Jon Stewart is gaining viewers and Piel's beer is gaining drinkers, it's at least partly due to their "we are what we are" lack of pretense. (It will be interesting to see whether CBS News, having decided to abandon the single-anchor format, will go so far as to abjure star-based news programming in favor of an aggressive product focus.)
The chasm between authenticity and brands isn't unbridgeable. It's still possible for marketing communications to influence and benefit a firm's brand. But that won't come about readily by hiring guerrilla-marketing agencies, financing "grassroots" campaigns, or secretly paying talk show hosts to plug policies. In a transparent world, good branding will only happen when companies communicate openly and honestly about themselves and their products, and embed the same qualities in their goods and services.
Happy "No" Year!
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.